As a hero ingredient it’s hard to beat an oyster, particularly when that oyster has been grown in the pristine waterways of the Eurobodalla Shire.
But as the old adage goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. In a timely move given COVID helped Australians reconnect with everything local, the 2021 Narooma Oyster Festival (30 April to 1 May) will not just celebrate the Eurobodalla’s famous molluscs, but will highlight a range of local foods from across the NSW South Coast.
It’s a shift which festival ambassador, chef turned oyster farmer Paul West, says will have wide appeal.
“COVID has seen this area come onto many people’s radar for the first time and while they’ve been marvelling at its natural beauty they’ve discovered the food.
As well as our oysters we have some of the most incredible dairy country in Australia. There are excellent offshore fisheries, and the honeys of the south coast are very diverse,” West says.
COVID has also provided another plus which Narooma Oyster Festival visitors will be able to benefit from: ocean produce usually exported to Asia or high end restaurants across the world is now available locally.
A second generation abalone diver, Stephen Bunney from Narooma Abalone says the product he dives for is world’s apart from the abalone most of us are used to buying from the supermarket.
“When my wife and I started diving in around 1990s, wild caught abalone was 100 per cent of the market. Now, wild caught abalone is only a small percentage of the total market – there’s a lot of ranched and farmed abalone being produced,” he says.
Bunney’s ethical fishery is involved in reef restoration and Ocean Watch, and he’s delighted to spend more time helping the domestic market experience his sustainable product.
“People want to try locally caught, sustainable seafood. We are hoping to introduce people to abalone and, in doing that, to support our marine park economy,” he says.
“The Narooma Oyster Festival is an attempt to realise the quality of what we have right on our doorstep. It’s the wild end of the coast. If you put on a mask and snorkel and jump off the rocks – you get it straight away,” Bunney says.
Like other passionate foodies, Bunney loves what he does for a living.
“Diving is a mindful business here. You look at the men and women who work here in the industry and watch their faces. The have pride in their hearts,” he says.
That pride will be on display via many of the Narooma Oyster Festival favourites. The much-loved Friday night event is back (although like all other festival activities it’s now ticketed to ensure a COVID safe weekend). Festivalgoers will enjoy family-friendly activities, live music and food stalls on the waterfront at Forster’s Bay Narooma, beer and wine from the Narooma Rocks Bar, produce from the Matt Ratcliffe Oyster Bar and awe at fireworks at 8.30pm.
Saturday will bring a full day of food and wine celebrations. Oyster tastings in Oyster Alley will feature farmers from at least six local estuaries, and there will be oyster masterclasses, the oyster shucking competition (a highly coveted title among local oyster farmers), a bush tucker cook-up and cooking demonstrations from well-known chefs, all of whom will be matched with a local food producer.
Kelly Eastwood, from Eastwood’s Deli and Cooking School in Bermagui, will host the cooking demonstrations at the 2021 Narooma Oyster Festival. Kelly (pictured left with Stephen Bunney) will take to the stage alongside Bunney and visiting Chef Mark Glenn from Canberra’s Pialligo Estate.
Lastly, a new addition to the festival’s cultural program, the River of Arts Alley, will allow visitors to experience the work of numerous local artists.
While Paul West isn’t the only one who can’t wait for the celebration of local produce, he knows firsthand just how important it is to local oyster farmers that opportunities like the Narooma Oyster Festival exist.
“Oyster farmers had a tough time in 2020 due to their intrinsic link to the hospitality industry – that is still continuing. So it’s wonderful to be able to celebrate their hard work, celebrate the ingredient and appreciate them for all they do,” West says.
Of course, when it comes to the rock oyster, it’s an easy product to appreciate.
“It’s a unique ingredient and we produce the best of it. Living here is like living in Champagne in France – we are so fortunate to have these incredible molluscs here,” West says.